November 02, 2015
/ by Jim Dougherty
Some of the most exciting content being published today includes some sort of data visualization. More than just charts or graphs, today’s tools allow journalists and communication professionals to provide interactive content in very customizable and visually pleasing ways.
Great data visualization often times requires coding, and coding is not a skill set that everyone shares. Fortunately, there are a lot of newer data visualization tools that take care of the coding for you.
Without code your sample size may be limited (especially if you’re cutting and pasting from Excel), but as a communication professional you’ll be able to provide more engaging resources to journalists and to the public. Imagine the strength of your media pitch or the engagement of your content with a unique interactive chart or two to illustrate your points.
What I want to do in this post is briefly go through some data visualization tools that anyone can use. As an example in each instance, I used 2010 fire incident data from Cincinnati for the data in my charts (about 12,000 rows of data). I didn’t demonstrate any bells and whistles, just a basic chart (when I could) to give you an idea of what each platform can do.
That said, let’s check out these tools:
Raw offers you 13 unique visualization options that look very professional (its “Bump” chart for example is modeled after the New York Time’s visualizations). All of the variables are drag-and-drop from your dataset, and the visualization populates in real-time to demonstrate what your visualization will look like when you’re building it.
The only caution that I would offer is that Raw uses a lot of computer resource to operate, so I found it helpful to close out programs and superfluous windows before building a chart with Raw.
Here’s an example of a “Clustered Force Layout” chart that I made in Raw with the Cincinnati fire data:
Plotly produces traditional, interactive charts (line chart, scatter plot, bar chart, histogram and area plot) and does these really well.
You can upload data from a spreadsheet or cut and paste it (similar to Raw). The user experience of Plotly isn’t as intuitive as raw; however, there are some aspects of populating the graph that require a little bit of tinkering. But it is a very powerful and effective tool for making these interactive forms of familiar graphs.
Plotly also boasts a collaborative network, which allows you to share your data and visualizations with co-workers. If you’re working in collaboration with others on data visualizations, this might be a helpful feature as well.
Plotly is a freemium product, ranging in cost from free to moderately expensive (depending upon your customization needs). This is an example of a bar graph created using the Cincinnati fire data set and Plotly:
Developed at the Northwestern University Knight Lab, Timeline is very smartly conceived data visualization tool. It doesn’t have a lot of customization features; it just does one thing exceptionally well: creates timelines. And it’s free to use.
Data has to be loaded in their specific format, which makes this a (relatively) labor intensive process. It’s hard to argue with the end result, however.
I chose not to parse data to create a unique timeline example, but here are three examples of timelines created with the product:
As you can see, this is a tool that is widely used and looks pretty consistent from graph-to-graph.
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Datawrapper is a straightforward visualization tool with a few neat bells and whistles. Uploading data can be done with a .csv file or by pasting from the source. I had trouble uploading the Cincinnati fire data, which may mean that you have to parse your data pretty thoroughly before uploading to Datawrapper. The sample datasets in Datawrapper have a limited number of columns.
Datawrapper is also a paid app. Users must pay a monthly (12 euros) or annual fee (100 euros) to generate embedded graphs and download images of Datawrapper charts.
Despite its limitations, Datawrapper has the most intuitive interface of any of the tools I sampled.
Chartblocks is another really intuitive and easy-to-use data visualization tool. Uploading data can be done with a spreadsheet or by pasting from the source. Chartblocks allows you to create interactive bar graphs, line graphs, area graphs, scatterplots and pie charts. Its usability is strong and customizable.
Like Raw, Chartblocks takes up a lot of computer resources when creating charts and this can slow an otherwise pretty fast process.
Chartblocks is a freemium product. The example chart below is a bar graph of fire incidents by day:
What post about tools would be complete without mentioning anything Google? Google Fusion Tables are Google’s solution for data visualization. It’s free and it’s good.
Upload of spreadsheets and pasted data is straightforward and fast. There is a slight learning curve to create charts and embed them, but once you figure out where things are, this is a fantastic tool. Not as flashy as some of the other options, but it is stable, fast and the price is right.
Here’s a basic line-graph comparing number of fire incidents each day:
You may find that you want to want to do a “heatmap” type of visualization, which is very cool because of its capability to tell a specific story. My Heat Map allows you to create a heat map visualization, offers a really great step-by-step guide and customer service and it’s the best looking of any of the heat map tools I looked at.
You can do one heat map with up to 20 data points for free, but then you need to spring for the subscription which costs $20/month.
The reason that I didn’t originally include this tool in the post was that I couldn’t see how to embed a map into my site. It’s not evident, but it’s easy (hat tip to My Heat Map for responding to my email). All you have to do is put the enlarged map link into an iframe with size specifications. Here’s an example:
The sites listed above are probably the best tools for data visualization without coding (at least in plain sight). But there are other tools that can help to create some neat visuals that can help you with media pitches or to enhance your organic content:
Data visualization is oftentimes a component of stellar content. Whether it’s the New York Times or FiveThirtyEight, or Mashable, data visualization enhances content and is increasingly conspicuous in digital media.
Regardless of your technical aptitude you (YOU!) can create professional, interactive data visualizations using the tools listed above. Hopefully, the list above proves helpful for you in this regard.
Of course, all of these recommendations come with the caveat that the charts will only be as good as the data sets that inform them.
Images: justgrimes, syam, various brennemans (Creative Commons)
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